Lessons Learnt From Starting My Own Firm

I am living my dream. That’s what I thought till yesterday when the light bulb went off!

A few months ago I decided to launch my own practice. It was something I wanted to do for a long time, and it was something that some of my ex-bosses thought I should do. Everybody who knew me thought I fit the personality, skills and drive. I was getting pumped from all directions. And I wanted a new adventure in my life. A lot of my friends were doing it out of necessity, loss of job, recession, and what not. I did it because I wanted to give it a shot. Try it once and see how it goes. I had no potential clients, but I jumped on the bandwagon!

Because I had been thinking about it for quite a while, I did some homework before I made my decision. I am super impulsive by nature, but I was a bit cautionary in this particular action. I attended a few sessions here and there about starting your own architecture firm. Didn’t read any books, I can’t handle the books without a storyline. I knew I needed some money in the bank to survive, so I saved a little. But I had quite a few financial surprises awaiting!

For the first time in life, I paid my dues to the associations I belong to out of my own pocket. AIA ticket was the biggest! ULI came in close second. And I decided to join SPUR because it was quite affordable. I passed on USGBC although I am passionate about Green Building. The problem is, it’s not just the dues you have to pay. But there are additional charges for attending almost every nice event you want to go to. So you have to consider those additional charges on top of the dues. These charges add up real fast. And when you aren’t making a paycheck, they can be quite painful. Forget attending conferences if you are not funded! Then there are the business expenses for initial set up. You’ll spend thousands in the first few months, getting your business registered, buying software, signing an office lease, marketing material, website, business cards… it adds up.

But I knew all this before I got myself into this. I was prepared for this. What I wasn’t prepared for was a shocker I faced in the eye yesterday.

You see… being a woman with a foreign accent, I always got the impression that I could get some certifications and go after public work. Public work is my absolute love. I have never been comfortable doing private work, maybe because I have never worked with a developer who really cared about the environment or aesthetic quality of the work. My private client experience has been driven by financial outcomes. Public entities, although they move slow, care. They have to! Money is tight, but they care. So my gameplan was to set up the business, get certified as Small Business Enterprise (SBE), Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), Local Business Enterprise (LBE), Women Based Enterprise (WBE), and then go after public work. I expected the process to be long, waiting for RFQs for IDIQ lists, then going through the steps, hopefully get called for an interview, and hoping to win a commission. Long process. Turns out, all certifications require US citizenship. Totally fair! I completely understand that. However, for a person like me with no country, this is a bummer. I’ve spent the last 12 years paying taxes like every other citizen of United States, rather paid much more in tuition and what not because I’m not a citizen. But now I can’t even qualify for government work. Life would be different if I was an illegal immigrant or married to a citizen. Unfortunately the laws are more strict for people who migrate out of skills and ability than for those who take shortcuts.

I am faced with the reality of the matter now. Await a few more years before I can even qualify for any government work! In the meanwhile, I have to shift gears and find private clients. Something I never thought I’d be doing when I have my own business. It’s a complete shift in my strategy. Part-time teaching was always part of the plan, so I will continue to pursue that. And I’m working on couple design competitions. So in a way I am still living my dream… owning my business, being my own boss, running my own schedule, participating in design competitions, pursuing teaching. The shift is in my target clientele. A group that is outside of my comfort zone. But it’s something I will have to do to survive.

This brings me to the lessons learnt. I wish I had done the following before I started this journey. Too late for me, but the list might help some aspiring architects.

1. Don’t do it solo. There are things I am good at, but there are things I wish I never had to deal with. I am a social person, but within my comfort zone. If I had a partner today, I will be out and about every night building a network. But doing that solo is a huge challenge for me. I wish I had a partner today who would be willing to go through the lists of potential clients, strategize on how to target them, and keep an eye out for RFQs. I need marketing help. Of course I can’t hire one, so I’ve got to deal with it! I wish I could find a partner who was a US citizen and go after these certifications. But it’s too late for me. If you want a partner, find one while you are in school, while you are taking AREs, while you are working in a paid job.

2. Don’t do it if you don’t have a project in hand. Some people work on a family or friend’s house or store as their first project. Those people are wise. You need something to start. I have NO family in this country, so I don’t have a support network. All my friends are architects, because I spent the last many years hanging out with AIA folks in all of my free time. I have a big network, but the majority of them are architects, with couple engineers. Now I need to make new friends, and I don’t know where to begin! I am too much of an architect, and that too an AIA addict.

3. Be open to possibilities. I had put all my hopes and expectations in getting public work. And now I have to completely shift and look at the opposite end. You never know where life will take you. So be open to all possibilities. I didn’t work on a business plan, financial plan, or any plan. I still won’t be working on one. Maybe it’s a good idea to do that. Don’t take my example in this matter. I am yet to make a check. Working on non-profit work and competitions hasn’t got me a dollar, and I don’t expect it to!

In spite of these early woes and struggles, I am hopeful. It will take some time, but I will get there. I will sign my first contract. I’m sure I’ll have something to add to the list in six months from now. This is just the beginning…

Women in Architecture

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‘Women can do everything men can do, and we can do it in high heels!’

That’s how I closed when I wrote about the subject over a year ago. I have a stronger belief in the statement today as I continue to meet women of the profession who have made a significant impact in their careers. Yet the number of these women is staggeringly low.

I was at the 2011 AIA Communications Summit last month where the AIA leadership and marketing field experts got together to revisit the image of architects in the society, the impact of the profession, and the branding of AIA and architecture. One point in discussion was that based on a public survey, the image of an architect in society continues to be that of an arrogant, unapproachable, rich white male. We would all agree that this is far from reality. But we do need to address the gender gap.

It is a general fact that managers sub-consciously tend to hire or promote the people in whom they see their own image. If the leadership of a firm is composed of men in the majority, women automatically will face a bigger challenge getting across. How will the place of a female architect improve within and outside the profession?

There are many male architects portrayed on the big screen in creative, romantic, and sometimes sadistic roles. In a rare occurrence, the 1996 movie One Fine Day shows a female architect played by Michelle Pfeiffer who predictably finds it very challenging to create work-life balance, juggles between her responsibilities, faces a difficult boss who doesn’t understand, and almost jeopardizes her career when she cannot stay for drinks with the clients in the evening. Fifteen years later, how far have we come?

One Fine Day

I was thrilled to see the recent AT&T TV commercial about Helping Small Businesses Work Better. Among others, the ad shows a female architectural designer who says that she would like to design more buildings. Is it progress to see another female architect on screen after 15 years? Of course she cannot compete with the recognition of Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother, but it is certainly a start. Also, we finally have an architect Barbie™ after all these years! There may be a looming debate over her clothing and shoe selection, but many of us do wear dresses and heels to work and don’t necessarily visit jobsites every day. A woman can look like one and still have a career.

Running lists of impactful female architects can be found all over the web. They include the women that worked behind the scenes with male starchitects of the past centuries, and continue on to the women of today who have made a mark on their own and are not hiding behind the scenes. Female architects have come far. They are equipped and ready than ever to face the challenges of this profession. Whether they are dressed in the usual black suits or wear a dress with high heels, they will conquer.

Women in Architecture

The life of a female architect… I don’t think it is much different from a guy working in a female hair salon surrounded by women. Women of architecture also work everyday surrounded by men. But the male hair stylist enjoys his job for entirely different reasons than a female architect does working in this male-dominated profession.

Personally, I enjoy being one of the rare few. But all women are not as fortunate as me to get the opportunities I’ve received in my life. I could talk about the lack of diversity in the profession, but I don’t believe it can be forcibly created. I could speak of the discrimination against women, but I don’t want to be mistaken as a feminist. I could make a list of inspiring and successful female architects, but the research would provide us with varied ideas and opinions on that. I could give you the statistics of how much less women make, but that’s a subject of discussion in a better economy. Instead of focusing on the complaints that women have towards the profession, I focused my efforts on doing a public survey in the past couple weeks. The purpose of the survey was to see how architectural thinking might differ between the two genders because, of course, women don’t work any less hard than men! I published the question in various non-architectural forums about how the general public perceives architecture and compared the notes between men and women. What separates a male from a female?

Here is the Men’s Top Five list of elements that make architecture successful in the order of repetition of comments (highest is #1).

  1. Indigenous materials
  2. Vernacular architecture, respect for historic context
  3. Environmental appropriateness
  4. NO big glass boxes, keep human scale
  5. Welcoming, inspiring

Women’s Top Five list:

  1. Art in architecture
  2. How the project makes one feel; welcoming, easy navigation
  3. Daylight
  4. Proportions
  5. Truthful structure

I was fortunate to interview three middle school girls just in time for this article to compare my findings with how a young girl might perceive architecture. It is no surprise that the overall experience is highly dependent on the mood and health. What do young girls look at when they visit buildings?

  1. Art and installations
  2. Colors and materials
  3. Surface texture
  4. Nature – greenery
  5. Eating options, play options

I find the survey results very intriguing. Men, women and children are looking for different things, but they are interrelated and all so important. You can’t have one and not the other. Similarly, this profession can’t be biased towards a person based on their gender. Not only is it illegal, but one will do disservice to their clients by focusing on a certain gender employees. We all bring something important to the table, and the more diverse a team is the better the architectural results will be. I’ve heard many people say that only B****’s can be successful in this profession. Does it have to be that way?

Men need to look at female architects with the same respect they look at male architects. We are no less qualified and work no less than them. On the other hand, the women of this profession should focus less on what’s put in their plate and utilize their energies into making success happen for themselves. Complaining doesn’t take you anywhere. Women have a higher endurance for pain, so they should have the capacity to boldly face the challenges that this profession poses. Opportunities may not present themselves; diversity won’t occur overnight; women’s success is in their own hands just like men’s.

Women can do everything men can do, and we can do it in high heels!